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Burgers of the Year: Good, Bad & Ugly

This turned out to be another tough year not just for burger joints but for every restaurant that isn’t named McDonald’s. Consumers may be more easily reached thanks to the rise of social media, but they are no more easily persuaded, as NPD’s recent report of flat customer traffic in 2011 attests. And that helps explain this year’s choices for the year’s most important burgers: 

Dave's Hot 'n Juicy Cheeseburgers

Ξ Burger of the Year: Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy Cheeseburger. Wendy’s teased us for months about this burger, taking its time test marketing the new thicker, juicier patty before the fall introduction. It was careful because Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy is a cornerstone of chain management’s efforts to reaffirm its place as a major player in the QSR market.
     Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy matters to Wendy’s because burgers matter to American diners. Pundits can forecast the end of the burger era, but when restaurants want to reconnect with consumers they do so with burgers. You can lose count of the number of chains that have used improved burgers to signal their quality commitment. Jack in the Box has just reformulated its burgers. Max & Erma’s is using a new burger line to fight back from bankruptcy. In Australia, Hungry’s Jack’s (Burger King) has adopted organic burgers in its market-share battle there with McDonald’s. Burgers continue to be the ultimate American signature dish. That’s what Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy signifies; that’s why it’s the burger of the year.

Stack'd Burger Bar's Hangover Burger

Ξ Honorable Mention: Charbroiled Turkey Burgers. Hardee’s and Carl’ Jr. took a chance by being the first national QSR burger chain to offer turkey burgers. This year’s high beef costs made the decision a little easier, of course, but they took the leap and it paid off. They made it cool to menu turkey. 

Ξ Burger of the Year (Independent): The Hangover Stack, Stack’d Burger Bar, Milwaukee. This half-pound beauty (at right) hits a lot of hot trends, including this year’s widespread recognition that a fried egg makes a great burger topping. Stack’d buys Wisconsin grass-fed beef (another trend) and calls on local suppliers for toppings where possible (#3). You know the cheese is local. The $12 Hangover’s add-ons include fried onions, thick-cut bacon, aged Cheddar, lettuce and tomato in addition to the fried egg. And diners get their own mini bottle of Tabasco. This burger sits at the intersection of authenticity and quality, which is where you find 2011′s best burgers.

Ξ Burger of the Year (International): 1955 Burger. McDonald’s salute to the year Ray Kroc opened his first restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., was a hit wherever it was added to the menu this year. First introduced in Germany in 2010, the 1955 Burger worked its away across Europe this year from the UK to Croatia. The company credited this burger with boosting European sales this year. It will be in on McDonald’s U.S. menu eventually, perhaps in 2012.

 Ξ Worst Burger Ideas of the Year. We have a tie between Denny’s Mac ‘n Cheese Big Daddy Patty Melt (some side dishes just need to remain as such), and Burger King’s Meat Monster, a Japan-only creation that piled beef, chicken and pork onto one bun. Loving burgers should never include gluttony. Runner-up is the McItaly Adagio, McDonald’s chef-created burger in Italy that’s topped with puréed eggplant. Just wrong. 

Ξ Burger Book of the Year: George Motz’s “Hamburger America: Completely Revised and Updated Edition: A State-by-State Guide to 150 Burger Joints” (Running Press, 2011). Motz was writing about burgers and burger joints before blogs like this one sprouted like weeds. This new edition updates his 2008 classic. 

Ξ Burger TV Commercial of the Year: “Anthem.” The relationship between Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s and ad agency David & Goliath lasted longer than Kim Kardashian’s marriage, but still couldn’t make it a full year (client and agency broke up this month). It’s too bad because D&G’s first TV work for the chains—declaring “We believe in burgers”—was a classic. “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials because ugly ones don’t sell burgers…We believe in celebrity endorsements so we can hang out with celebrities.” What other marketing program this year was that honest? Or that funny? 

Here’s hoping the burger business will be honest and fun again in 2012.

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